Monday, August 27, 2012

Culture in the Cards

Culture in the CardsToday in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class we will be talking in part about poker’s prehistory, including discussing various games that can be called poker’s precursors such as as nas, mus, brag, poch, and primiera. Next class we’ll get to poque, the French game that most believe is the most immediate forerunner to poker, and then into the 19th century and the early days of actual poker in the U.S.

Like poque, most of these earlier games come from Europe, although the story of poker’s prehistory also extends elsewhere, including the far East. Today we’ll talk about the invention of playing cards, too, and how in all of these different countries the cards tended to incorporate reference to the producing culture.

Thus do you see weird things like coins and cups and scimitars and flowers and plants and polo sticks and all sorts of other meaningful items printed on the cards, depending on the country. When the suits came about, they, too, had symbolic significance, with the hearts sometimes representing the church, the diamonds the merchant class, spades the military, and clubs the importance of agriculture/farmers.

In France came the “valet” (knave or jack), “dame” (queen), and “roi” (king), figures which ultimately would appear as the face cards in most decks. Once the 52-card deck became established, kings and queens remained even in countries where there was no royalty to speak of like the U.S.

I was in the middle of reviewing this material yesterday when I saw a short piece over on the Slate site l reporting from the upcoming Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. The report shared the story of a fellow named Matthew Sanchez (not the embattled New York Jets quarterback) who was there this past weekend as a vendor at a rally for the candidate Ron Paul.

Sanchez has created a new deck of playing cards he refers to as “The Official American Standard Playing Cards” in which he’s incorporated all sorts of U.S.-themed symbolism and/or highly literal reference to various aspects of American government and history.

“After 236 years, America should have her own playing cards that represent her founding and her republic,” explains Sanchez in a short video as he introduces his set. Here it is, if you’re curious:

It’s a bit confusing to follow (e.g., instead of the usual suits, there is “faith, declaration, revolution, and unity”), and all of the text on the cards seems a bit much, too (e.g., the Bill of Rights are printed on cards 1-10). Gentlemen, Ladies, and Patriots replace the jacks, queens, and kings; thus there are no royals, which Sanchez says are “Un-American.”

Don’t really expect Sanchez to get very far with his deck, the creation of which sounds like it might have been motivated not simply by patriotism but by a kind of isolationist impulse -- i.e., the deck provides an occasion to voice certain thoughts about the U.S. needing to distinguish itself from or break ties with other countries. Or maybe in the context of poker, there’s an idea in here somewhere to “take back” the game somehow, I don’t know.

In any case, Sanchez does follow in a long tradition when it comes to the conscious incorporation of cultural symbols and messages in the manufacture of playing cards. I may have to mention him and his “Official American Standard Playing Cards” in class today, if only to reinforce the idea that in most cultures, the games people play take on all sorts of added significance.

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Blogger darrelplant said...

Interesting idea, but those are some ugly, impractical card designs.

8/27/2012 9:55 AM  

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